We're gonna be inexperienced in some spots. And you just never know until you put those pads on and go against other teams and see what they're like and how we match up. But I like our chances to be right in the thick of things again. —Russ Jones, Syracuse head football coach
SYRACUSE — Russ Jones cringes just a little bit when told his Syracuse High football team is looked upon by just about everybody as the team to beat in the upcoming Region 1 campaign.
Sure, the Titans are coming off the greatest season in the history of the school. They rattled off 12 consecutive victories to reach the 5A state championship game, only to get throttled by a superb Jordan team in the finale.
But they lost a lot of key players off that terrific Titan team, and Jones can't help but wonder if this year's lofty expectations are based more on last year's stellar showing than they are on this year's Syracuse High squad.
"I think we're gonna be OK," he said. "We're gonna be inexperienced in some spots. And you just never know until you put those pads on and go against other teams and see what they're like and how we match up. But I like our chances to be right in the thick of things again.
"I just don't want to be overconfident with them, and I don't want to be under-confident, either. Our kids will compete, they really will. They'll go out and compete and give it everything they've got.
"But a lot of those expectations are based on what we did last year," Jones said. "Shoot, we've never been ranked third in the state before. A lot of these other schools have got six, seven, eight or nine Division I players coming back. We've got one, maybe (Kavika Fonua). If we can get all of our kids to play as one unit, that's how we'll get to be successful."
And even though a lot of folks figure the Titans should start making room in their trophy case for another region title trophy, Jones has some serious reservations about such talk and isn't making any bold preseason statements.
"Everybody in our region, to me, has improved from last year," he said. "It was a heckuva job by our kids last year to go 5-0 and win the region. But I think every team's improved this year from last year, and hopefully we have, too. I think anybody can beat anybody on any given day, I really do.
"If we can just get our kids to stay healthy and play good, play as a unit and play as a team, we'll be OK."
Well, probably better than OK. But don't expect the Titans to rattle off 12 straight wins again, even though they do have several key contributors returning from last year's team that played for the state title.
Quarterback Kole Tracy, a junior quarterback who got his first varsity start in the 5A semifinals after season-long starter Brock Anderson went down with an Achilles injury near the end of their quarterfinal triumph, returns to guide the offense this season.
"That was the first time he'd been on the field, really, for the varsity," Jones said of Tracy's baptism by fire — which the Titans won, by the way, with a 21-16 victory over Bingham in the semis. "He's a good one; he's got all the tools to be a good quarterback — good leader, good arm, runs good. He's got some good potential."
Behind Tracy is sophomore quarterback Chase Bauerle.
At running back, senior Kavika Fonua, who recently committed to BYU, leads the way along with senior Trevor Olsen and junior Brandon Goncalves, with seniors Tyler Roberts, Will Haddick and Austin Shelter and junior Corbin Markos also ticketed to see some playing time in the Titans' backfield.
The Titans' receiving corps includes seniors Josh Thalman, Blake Taurone, Carson Nielsen, Justin Lee, Josh Homer, Jackson Craythorne, Spencer Miller and Riley Wilcox, and juniors Jake Wakefield, Tyler Bills, Daunte Atkinson and Colton Yardley.
Aspen Naylor, a senior, will start at center, with seniors Caden Call and Kaden Craig starting at offensive guard. The offensive tackles include senior starters Jace Purser and Braden Toby, with senior Dallas Besaw and juniors Alex Harris, Ammon Riley, Zack Stanger and Cache Lowry providing depth on the O-line.
Over on defense, Call and Kraig will capably man the tackle spots, with Toby, senior Markell Thomas and junior Stephan Olives backing them up. Senior Spencer Woodhall, Purser, Naylor, Bills and Thalman will see playing time at defensive end.
Wyatt German is a senior returning starter at middle linebacker, and he'll be joined by seniors Teague Vigil and Taurone, with Goncalves, Cameron Pingree and juniors Treston Cullimore and Tyler Hale in reserve.
The secondary includes Homer, Atkinson, Jacob Winger, Dax Harris, Adam Johnson and Roberts at cornerback, with Chadwick and Fonua starting at safety, with Haddick and juniors Mason Leishman and Jaydn Peterson providing depth there. Romney Harker, a junior, will handle the place-kicking chores, with Harris handling the punting.
Yes, all things considered, the Titans probably deserve that distinction as the team to beat in Region 1. But it won't be easy — it never is — and folks like Davis, Northridge, Layton and Fremont will likely have a lot to say about it before the season's through.
Syracuse Titans at a glance
Coach: Russ Jones begins his seventh season at the school — the only head football coach the Titans have ever had — and has compiled a 44-25 record over his first six seasons. He is 69-52 overall in 11 seasons as a high school head coach.
(6 returning starters; spread/multiple formations)
Junior quarterback Kole Tracy, thrust into the starting role in last year's 5A playoffs, gets a chance to begin the season as "the guy" in the Syracuse huddle. He'll be joined by senior running back Kavika Fonua and a bevy of other running backs and receivers who are looking for their opportunity to step up and shine this season. Kaden Craig and Caden Call anchor the O-line for an explosive offense that averaged more than 32 points per game in the Titans' 12-game winning streak to start the season.
(6 returning starters; 4-3-4 scheme)
Linemen Kaden Craig and Caden Call, linebackers Wyatt German and Teague Vigil and safety Kavika Fonua will lead the way for a fierce defensive effort that allowed Region 1 opponents an average of just over 8 points per game in last year's league title run. In fact, before that debacle in the 5A finals, the Titans had given up only around 9.2 points per game to their opponents through their first 12 games. Stellar defense is no accident, and you can expect Syracuse to play plenty of it again this year — a calling card for all Russ Jones-coached teams.
Coaches' preseason Region 1 straw poll: First
Deseret News Region 1 prediction: First
Bottom line: The Titans received plenty of accolades last season, and rightfully so, after starting the season 12-0 and reaching the first state championship game in school history. Coach Russ Jones isn't so sure they deserve such high expectations this season, but pretty much everybody with a vote is picking the Titans to take the title again. They'll find out just how realistic those lofty expectations are in September when they host highly touted league foes Davis and Northridge in back-to-back weeks. After that, though, they'll play three of their final four league games on the road, including challenging away matchups with Layton and Fremont. So those two September showdowns at home against two of their most bitter Davis County rivals loom mighty large in Syracuse's quest for a second straight region championship.
Syracuse coaching history
2007-present — Russ Jones (45-24)
Deseret News First Team All-Staters the past 10 years
2012 — Brock Anderson, QB
2012 — Cardon Malan, DL
2012 —Kavika Fonua, DB
2012 — Diante Mitchell, DB
2011 — Corey Cook, OL,
2011 — Hunter Dimick, DL
2011 — Brock Anderson, K, Syracuse
2010 — Hunter Dimick, DL
2009 — Josh Gooch, LB
2009 — Mitch Tulane, DB
2008 — T.J. Blickfeldt, DB
2008 — Josh Kealamakia, K
To view second team and honorable mention All-Staters through the years, check out the Deseret News All-State Archives.